Written & Directed by Simon Stallworthy
Gala Theatre, Durham

Cinderella production photo

In much the same way as the Customs House in South Shields does, The Gala Theatre in Durham presents a pantomime that adheres very much to the traditional values of the genre, and this year’s production of Cinderella is no exception. Assembling a cast made up, primarily, of North East actors and with references to locations in the surrounding area, this is a production that is situated very much in the locale.

Many of the characters are played by a ‘family’ of regular Gala panto performers. Neil Armstrong, of Seaham Harbour, Donald McBride of Fencehouses and Jane Deane return for their third consecutive season, whilst Paul Hartley has performed in all eight of the theatre’s pantomimes, which is surely a resounding testament to his popularity and talent. South Shields born Helen Embleton, Spennymoor’s own John Carter, Australian Tom Caley and recently-graduated Sophie Michaels all make their panto debut at the Durham venue.

What makes this pantomime particularly special, for me, is the fact that it has been produced with such honesty, sincerity and charm. Although there is no denying that the big-bucks productions that boast the most spectacular special effects, star-signings and all manner of gimmicks, gizmos and technical wizardry are truly breath-taking, it is rather refreshing for a pantomime to be led purely by the performances of its cast.

Simon Stallworthy has penned a script that allows each and every one of his talented team to shine. Neil Armstrong, as Baron Gristle, is a consummate villain and almost Dickensian in character and appearance. Indeed, many of the stock characters have been given a refreshing twist: Helen Embleton’s feisty Fairy Marigold is no sickly-sweet, saccharine do-gooder, but a no-nonsense, often irritable nymph – more Fairy Godmother-in-law-from-hell than anything else! Tom Caley’s Prince Charming is portrayed as the dimmest and drippiest royal in pantoland and his foppish buffoon of a namby-pamby prince is reminiscent of a Hugh Grant character.

Some characters are portrayed more conventionally, though, including the Uglies and Cinderella. Donald McBride and John Carter, as Sarah and Clara Gristle, respectively, are a delightful double-act. Physically, they complement each other perfectly – McBride’s scrawniness set against Carter’s heftiness works wonderfully and presents a comedic visual image. The pair milked their musical numbers – ‘It’s Raining Men’ and ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ – for all they were worth. Sophie Michaels struck the right cord as Cinderella, managing to engage the sympathy and support of the audience without being too simpering and saintly.

Paul Hartley and Jane Deane, as Buttons and Dishes, are undoubtedly the most popular characters as far as the kids are concerned. They provided much of the slapstick and physical comedy. Hartley’s background as a Pontin’s bluecoat is evident in the rapport that he is effortlessly able to strike up with the kids, whilst Deane’s circus skills enable her to provide great physicality and excellent comedy timing.

Once again, the Gala has come up trumps with a pantomime that has something for everyone.

Runs until Saturday 8th January 2011

Reviewer: Steve Burbridge

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